/ 14 July 2016

Masipa’s Pistorius sentence has trivialised the plight of female victims of violence

Judge Thokozile Masipa during Oscar Pistorius's sentencing hearing in the Pretoria High Court.
Judge Thokozile Masipa during Oscar Pistorius's sentencing hearing in the Pretoria High Court.

Oscar Pistorius’s sentence wasn’t a surprise. I expected it. It became clear to me fairly early on in Judge Thokozile Masipa’s involvement with his case that she was uncommonly mesmerised. The man or his disability, perhaps both, seemed to bring out the mother in her.

It was as if Pistorius, who had overcome so much in his life, had earned the right to be treated a little like a difficult child; that he was as different from your common-or-garden murderer as a dog is from a tiger.

Such murderers come from deprived backgrounds and have abusive family, or none at all, and most have addiction problems – all of which contribute to their murderous state of mind. These people are not achievers – nor, probably, will they ever be. They are neither rich nor famous, so no excuses can be made for them. Recidivism is a distinct possibility.

On the other hand, the pathetic, legless figure staggering through the courtroom must surely have aroused emotions in the judge that can only be described as maternal, falling in a no-man’s-land between compassion and admiration bordering on adulation. How else to explain her bizarre sentencing decision?

In her initial judgment, Masipa found Pistorius not guilty of murder but of manslaughter. In my view, she remained convinced enough of this judgment to levy an inappropriate sentence on a woman killer.

Even Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema expressed indignation that the blonde model did not receive the justice she deserved, casting blame on a racist system that favours whiteness, fame and wealth – though I have no doubt that had Reeva Steenkamp been a black model and a white judge had levied the same sentence for murder, his outrage would have known no bounds.

But here’s the thing that really irks me: women and children are molested and murdered every day in townships and rural areas, and sometimes shot to death by crazed husbands in the suburbs. Albino children disappear and are used for muthi in the belief that they bring good fortune.

So what kind of message is Masipa’s sentence sending to potential predators or perpetrators of violence against women? A few women I’ve spoken to put it like this: molest children, commit rape and murder and you never know – a smart lawyer, thoroughly versed in the manipulation of human emotions, might bring the justice system to heel in surprising ways.

A man like Pistorius, in Masipa’s compassionate view, had suffered so many losses already and was not at risk of recidivism – even if his real love affair, I’m told, was with guns, not his girlfriend. Well, murder victims don’t have time to engage with concepts such as suffering and the will to live; they’ve had all that taken from them by violent men.

I am haunted by that violence, and more so by the spectre of a justice system that trivialises violent acts against women and children. The faces of countless victims line up before me, reproachful ghosts pleading with those of us who are alive and unmolested to make somebody pay for their stolen lives.

A friend living in a township is attractive and smart, and is regularly hit on by men who then resent her firm rejection. She’s been burgled and threatened, and knows that some of the most persistent pests are married with children.

One night she worked late. She met a friend afterwards for a bite, and the two caught one of the last taxis home; the friend planned to stay over. The vehicle was almost empty save for two men sitting at the back. There wasn’t much traffic and they arrived at her street quicker than usual. They got off and the taxi moved on.

As they approached her door, the two men materialised out of the darkness and grabbed my friend. Not a word was said. She screamed. Her companion, in terror for her life – she is a lesbian who has been repeatedly threatened with rape and death – fled. The men let her go. While one stifled my friend’s screams with his hand and held her down, the other pulled off her jeans and raped her. Then they swapped places.

By the time her friend returned to the scene with two frightened old women in her wake, it was all over, the rapists long gone.

This same woman once broke a vase she loved. It had belonged to her grandmother and the loss brought her to tears. She tried for days to glue the pieces together, but it was a hopeless quest. “That vase,” she tells me, “is my life. It will never be whole again.”

We discussed the Pistorius sentencing. “What feels worst for me,” she says, “is that Masipa is a woman, an older, highly educated judge who is regarded as wise, empathetic.

“Yet she’s made me feel that what happened to me is insignificant, easily overcome. She has trivialised the cause of all women victims, not just Reeva Steenkamp. Her sentence feels like a betrayal not only of her sex, but of herself.”

Rosemund Handler is the author of four novels